“Disability rights are human rights” was a key theme for the 2020 Disability Advocacy Day at the Capitol February 25. Hundreds of people with disabilities, their advocacy groups and their allies turned out for an organizing session, a march and rally at the state capitol. Participants made signs, met with advocacy group representatives, heard updates on bills and met with their legislators.
The event is typically one of the first large disability community gatherings during the legislative session. It also gives a foreshadowing of which issues will be in play during the weeks ahead.
Rally emcee Katie Johnson was among those emphasizing that disability rights are human rights. Johnson described her life after a series of falls and brain injuries began a few years ago. She lost her job, her social network and other important supports. She found it difficult to get help. “When you acquire a disability, life begins to fray.”
Other self-advocates focused on the need for services and supports, talking about how their lives have been changed for better or for worse.
Maggie Erickson, who has Down Syndrome, outlined how inclusion since an early age has helped her succeed. She attended an inclusive daycare and school, and then went on to Bethel University.
She holds two jobs, participates in her community and has a “cool boyfriend.”
Down Syndrome has never prevented Erickson from achieving her dreams. She just wants to be treated like everyone else and have the same opportunities for employment, housing, education and marriage.
“I want others to have the same opportunities I’ve had,” she said. “That’s what meaningful access means to me.”
Familiar themes and new efforts were the focus as self-advocates described legislation that is on the table for 2020. Pay rates for direct support professionals, including those in the Personal Care Attendant (PCA) Program, is a focus yet again this session. So are a host of employment programs. Law enforcement training in response to people with disabilities is a focus, especially improved services to people with disabilities who are victims of sexual assault. Another need is that of improved training and support for the child care system, so that providers can better help and service children with disabilities.
State legislators provided encouragement to those present, urging everyone to share their stories and to demand a seat at the table when decisions are made. “Our lives count, our voices matter. We’re loud and we’re proud,” said Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake). Hamilton, who is uses a wheelchair, is authoring or co-authoring disability-related bills this session.
Hamilton and other state lawmakers outlined their work on bills this session, with several legislators speaking to the need to increase direct support worker wages. Rep. Jack Considine (DFL – Mankato) spoke of his frustration in trying to get more money for PCAs. He accused state leaders of balancing their budgets on the backs of people with disabilities.
Minnesota currently has more than 18,500 jobs open for PCAs, home health aides and others who are needed to help people with disabilities with daily living. Considine, whose constituents include a teenager who must live in a nursing home because she lacks support staff, has a bill sitting in Health and Human Services Finance Committee that would increase PCA wages to $14 an hour. “And I cannot get it heard,” he said.
Many lawmakers and self-advocates focused on the need for everyone to work together. Coalition-building and collaboration are needed for success. Jillian Nelson of the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), emphasized goals for self-advocates at the capitol. One is to push for equity, for access and supports for community inclusion and success in life. A second is to focus on human rights, in the form of civil, political and cultural rights and freedom from discrimination.
Others told the group to find a cause or causes that are important to them, and to dig right in. “It doesn’t matter what issues you are involved in,” said Jeff Nachbar of the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance. “What matters is that you get involved.”